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Are military takeovers increasing in Africa?

Supporters of the latest military takeover in Burkina Faso celebrate in the capital

Military coups were commonplace in Africa in the decades after independence, and there are concerns that they are becoming more frequent.

This year has seen two power grabs in Burkina Faso, as well as a failed coup attempt in Guinea Bissau. In 2021, Africa witnessed a higher number of coups compared to previous years.

A senior African Union official, Moussa Faki Mahamat, has expressed concern about “the resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government.”

When is a coup a coup?

One definition used is that of an illegal and overt attempt by the military, or other civilian officials, to remove sitting leaders.

A study by two American researchers, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, identified more than 200 such attempts in Africa since the 1950s. About half of these have been successful, defined as lasting more than seven days.

Burkina Faso, in West Africa, has had the most successful coups, with nine takeovers and only one failed coup.

zimbabwe soldier

There were celebrations after the Zimbabwean army intervened against President Mugabe in 2017

Sometimes those involved in such an intervention deny that it is a coup.

In 2017, in Zimbabwe, a military coup ended the 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe. One of the leaders, Major General Sibusiso Moyo, appeared on television at the time, flatly denying a military takeover.

In April last year, after the death of Chadian leader Idriss Déby, the army installed his son as interim president heading a transitional military council. His opponents called it a “dynastic coup.”

“Coup leaders almost always deny that their action was a coup in an effort to appear legitimate,” says Jonathan Powell.

How often are there coups in Africa?

The total number of coup attempts in Africa remained remarkably constant at an average of about four per year in the four decades between 1960 and 2000.

Jonathan Powell says this is not surprising given the instability African countries experienced in the years after independence.

Africa Hits Bar Chart

Africa Hits Bar Chart

“African countries have had common conditions for shocks, such as poverty and poor economic performance. When a country has a shock, it often heralds more shocks.”

Hits dropped to around two a year in the two decades to 2019.

We are only three years into the current decade and while only one hit was reported in 2020 (in Mali), in 2021 there was a noticeably higher than average number: six hits or attempted hits were recorded.

There were successful coups in Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan and failed military takeovers in Niger and Sudan all that year.

In September 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern about the “return of military coups” and blamed a lack of unity among the international community in response to military interventions.

“Geopolitical divisions are undermining international cooperation and… a sense of impunity is taking root,” he said.

Judd Devermont of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies believes that a “lenient” approach by regional and international bodies “has allowed coup leaders to make minimal concessions as they prepare to stay in power longer.” .

Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno

Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno succeeded his father as Chadian leader in April 2021

Ndubuisi Christian Ani of the University of KwaZulu-Natal says popular uprisings against long-standing dictators have provided an opportunity for a comeback of coups in Africa.

“While popular uprisings are legitimate and led by people, success is often determined by the decision made by the military,” he says.

Which countries have had the most hits?

Sudan has had the most coups and takeover attempts amounting to 17, six of them successful.

In 2019, longtime leader Omar al-Bashir was removed from power. after months of protests. Bashir himself took over in a military coup in 1989.

Nigeria had a reputation for military coups in the years after independence with eight between January 1966 and General Sani Abacha’s seizure of power in 1993.

Map showing the African countries with the most hits

Map showing the African countries with the most hits

However, since 1999, transfers of power in Africa’s most populous nation have been through democratic elections.

Burundi’s history has been marked by eleven separate coups, mostly fueled by tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi communities.

Sierra Leone experienced three coup attempts between 1967 and 1968, and another in 1971. Between 1992 and 1997, it experienced five more coup attempts.

Ghana has also had its share of military coups, with eight in two decades. The first was in 1966, when Kwame Nkrumah was removed from power, and the following year there was a failed attempt by junior army officers.

In general, Africa has experienced more shocks than any other continent. Of the 14 recorded hits globally since 2017, all but one, Myanmar in 2021, have been in Africa.

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